Tuesday 29 April 2014


Fans of Japanese pop culture, especially anime and manga, can now be found all over the world, and the Caribbean region is no exception.

In Jamaica, the Japanese genres have a strong following, especially among young people, so a coming exhibition on the island is expected to draw big crowds.

The poster for the exhibition at the
National Gallery of Jamaica
Starting May 11, the National Gallery of Jamaica will present “JAPAN: Kingdom of Characters”, which showcases anime and manga characters that have been popular in the Asian country.

Under the theme Characters and the Japanese, the exhibition asks various questions, such as: What exactly are "characters"? Why do characters appear and become popular? What kind of social reality do they reflect? according to a statement from the Gallery.

“The purpose of the exhibition is to introduce the world of characters in a broader sense and examine their impact on Japanese society. Highlights include life-sized models of some of Japan's most popular characters and a replica Hello Kitty room,” the Gallery added.

Charles Campbell, chief curator, told SWAN that the institution was "very excited" to host the art show because of the "huge interest" in Jamaica.

"It's a very big scene here," he said. "And we're also hopeful that it will attract new audiences to the Gallery." 

The exhibition is organized by the Embassy of Japan in association with the National Gallery and the Japan Foundation. It commemorates the 50th anniversary of Japan-Jamaica diplomatic relations and is also part of the National Gallery’s 40th- anniversary activities.

Established in 1974, the Gallery is the oldest and largest public art museum in the Anglophone Caribbean. It has a comprehensive collection of early, modern and contemporary art from Jamaica along with smaller Caribbean and international collections. A major selection of the artworks is on permanent view.

The “Japan” show forms part of the Gallery’s active exhibition programme, which includes retrospectives of work by major Jamaican artists, thematic exhibitions, guest-curated shows, touring events that originate outside of the island, and the premier national exhibition, the National Biennial.

Yasuo Takase, Ambassador of Japan to Jamaica, will launch “Kingdom of Characters”, which runs until June 14, 2014.

Sunday 6 April 2014


Biting humour from Australian cartoonist Cathy Wilcox

Is there ever anything “funny” about the topics of inequality, violence against women or sexist attitudes in the workplace? Cartoonists from around the world had a go at answering some of these questions at an off-beat festival in the southern French region of Hérault this weekend.

The second International Festival of Press Cartoons, titled L’Hérault Trait Libre (Herault draws a free line), brought together 18 cartoonists from 10 countries for a series of challenging debates about women rights and media portrayal, and also launched a provocative exhibition of drawings about these issues.

“It’s important to have a meeting like this of cartoonists from different regions to talk about clichés and stereotypes,” said Plantu, a well-known French cartoonist and president of Cartooning For Peace, which co-organized the festival with Hérault’s district council and a local press club.

“We use clichés in our work to draw attention to certain subjects, but are the clichés themselves a problem? Can we escape them?” he added.

The answer to that might be “no”, judging from some of the drawings produced during the festival itself. But many cartoonists are actively trying to promote dialogue and change attitudes, especially regarding gender.

Venezuelan cartoonist Rayma Suprani. (Photo: McKenzie)
In fact, a growing number of women cartoonists, from countries ranging from Tunisia to Venezuela, have made women’s rights a major theme in their work, even as they themselves confront sexism in the male-dominated cartooning sphere.

“I think women have a huge responsibility in the current era, of trying to create one’s own space and one’s own way of being,” said Rayma Suprani, a journalist-turned-cartoonist who works for the newspaper El Universal in Caracas, Venezuela.

“Nowadays, we have the privilege of greater freedom. My grandmother didn’t have the option of choosing to be a cartoonist, choosing not to be married or opting for an alternative lifestyle, for instance,” Suprani told SWAN.

In a country where machismo is a reality, using cartoons to poke fun at certain attitudes is only to be expected. Where Suprani faces problems, however, is in the political domain; she has received threats because of her work criticizing the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, and both Cartooning for Peace and Amnesty International have drawn attention to her case.

“I don’t think the threats are based solely on gender,” Rayma told SWAN. “It’s not because of your genital organs, but it’s because you have a brain and you can think.”

Tunisian cartoonist Willis from Tunis (Nadia Khiari), whose trademark character is an acerbic cat, has also faced threats, but she said that continuing to protest, whether on the streets on in cartoons and blogs, is one way to change things.

Willis from Tunis and Rayma Suprani drawing live.
Photo courtesy of Cartooning for Peace.
Her cartoons deride attempts to suppress women and freedom of expression, but like other cartoonists, Willis sometimes worries about how her work is perceived. For instance, when she tackles a subject such as rape perpetrated by members of the “security” forces, she’s concerned that the victim doesn’t see herself as being mocked, she said during the festival.

Sexual violence is in fact one of the most sensitive topics for cartoonists, and some male participants in Montpellier created drawings that made observers question whether they comprehend the effects of such violence.

But the issue isn’t only a male-female one, says Portuguese cartoonist Cristina Sampaio, it’s one of personality and sensibility. Aded to this is the question of whether there should be limits on freedom of expression.

“It’s a slippery slope,” Sampaio told SWAN. “There must be a balance between being a cartoonist and the audience’s ability to not take things too personally.”

For André Vezinhet, chairman of Hérault’s General Council, “freedom of expression is the mother of all freedoms and the work of cartoonists is a good indicator of the health of a democracy”.

A cartoon by Willis from Tunis
Still, the concept that freedom comes with responsibility - whether in the area of gender, ethnicity or religion - is the idea behind the founding of Cartooning for Peace.

Created by Plantu and former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan in 2006, following the protests sparked by the controversial Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, the initiative was meant to highlight the notion that cartoonists’ influence comes with a “responsibility to encourage debate rather than inflame passions, to educate rather than divide,” Annan says.

Alice Toulemonde, editorial director of Cartooning for Peace, told SWAN that in choosing cartoons for the exhibition launched during the festival, she didn’t see a real difference in the work of male and female cartoonists.

“The new generation of women cartoonists draw differently from the older generation, and may have a different approach to women’s rights as that is not their only concern,” she said. “The work also depends on the country because the gender context varies.”

Some countries may have greater levels of equality, but the public generally continues to perceive particular professions in a certain way. As cartooning has long been a male preserve, some readers automatically assume that a political drawing has been done by a man.

Cathy Wilcox, a cartoonist who works for the Sydney Morning Herald, tells of receiving letters that begin with “Dear Sir”. When she points out that it’s a woman who has done the cartoons, some readers ask if it’s a man who wrote the captions.

Tellingly, of the 108 members of Cartooning for Peace (representing more than 40 nationalities), only 25 are women. Could this mean that perhaps men are more adept at eliciting laughter?

Still, despite the statistics and the serious questions, the festival was entertaining on a number of fronts, especially when the cartoonists produced instant drawings satirizing one another and the topic at hand.

The exhibition Elles vident leur sac (They empty their bags) features 200 cartoons from 50 countries and runs until 26 July 2014, at the pierrevives community complex in Montpellier, Hérault department, France.

Wednesday 2 April 2014


Some of the members of Danakil. Photo: Julie Arnoux

If you want to listen to music that speaks to and of the times, then go for reggae, or at least roots reggae - the kind with socially conscious lyrics and a solid stance against injustice.

That at least seems to be the message from Entre les Lignes (Between the Lines), the latest album from French reggae band Danakil, a group not much liked by French critics but loyally supported by fans.

Their new album is a collection of unequivocal compositions in the tradition of Bob Marley and Third World; it chants down inequality and political hypocrisy, while still providing an infectious rhythm.

The cover of Entre les Lignes
France’s “unhealthy, one-way” relationship with its former colonies comes in for particular criticism on the album, especially on Mali Mali, the second track after the very lively opening song Poupées Russes (Russian Dolls).

“They want to sell the country as if it were merchandise … as if the population belonged to them,” lead vocalist Balik sings in French about the political treatment of the West African nation.

“Yes, they are the ones who put clientelism and corruption in place,” he adds.

As is widely known, France launched a military operation in Mali in January 2013, a year after armed conflict erupted in the north of the country with rebels seizing certain territory. Since then, Malian and French forces have largely recaptured the north, but public opinion in France is still divided about the government’s action.

With Entre les Lignes, Danakil urges listeners to read between the lines and to look at Europe’s history of colonialism. That message also comes across in the track L'or noir (Black gold), where mellow instrumentation contrasts with the tough lyrics about greed and political trickery.

Politics is not something that's obligatory for us, it just comes naturally,” says Mathieu, the band's manager and saxophonist. "We love and respect the traditions of reggae, which has a political aspect. But we also sing about things we see and experience ourselves."

Danakil in concert. Photo: Lisou Becker
In Le Rêve (The Dream), the second single released from the album, following the brass-driven Hypocrites, Danakil portrays a world in danger, while channeling youth discontent. The official music video shows scenes of destruction, makes reference to the Occupy Wall Street movement and runs through a host of long-past as well as more recent demonstrations.

“Neither deities nor devils will prevent me from believing … in those who raise their voices,” goes a line in the song, one of the best tracks on the album. The video also shows scenes of police violence and flashes a now iconic image of Jamaican political rivals Michael Manley and Edward Seaga at the 1978 Bob Marley peace concert.

Entre les Lignes thus pays homage to the home of reggae, and one of Marley’s sons, Ky-Mani is among the guest artists on the album. Others who lend their skills include The Twinkle Brothers (a Jamaican band formed in 1962 and still performing), and Harrison "Professor" Stafford and Marcus Urani, founding members of the American reggae group Groundation.

The guest artists contribute to the polished yet edgy sound of the album, but it is Balik’s persuasive voice that holds everything together. Since the creation of the band by eight young Paris-area students in 2000, he has given Danakil their signature sound: harshness combined with poetic beauty, rather like the Danakil Desert in Ethiopia, which inspired the band’s name.

Danakil is currently on a European tour with performances throughout France as well as in Belgium, Austria and other countries. The band will appear at Reggae Sun Ska in Bordeaux in August.

To view the official video of Le rêve go to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V3hlDiVb8IU